The Belgian players were motionless, their faces blank, as they heard the clock strike midnight. Across the Allianz Arena in Munich, the Italian players were slowly devoured by their fans, released only after they had turned their white jerseys and training bibs green and, in some cases, their shorts back. soiled to serve as future sacraments.
The team they had just beaten 2-1, however, barely moved. Kevin De Bruyne looked into the distance. Thomas Vermaelen stared at the grass. The only clue that Roberto Martínez, their trainer, hadn’t been replaced by a statue was the fact that his mouth was moving, furiously chewing gum.
Belgium’s last chance had come, and she was gone. That was how I felt, anyway. It was what the players believed, what Martínez had internalized: that this team, this generation, “deserved” some sort of overt reward for everything they had accomplished. That it would come in the form of a trophy, a title, and that Euro 2020 was the ultimate opportunity to grab it.
That was the bar that had been set, the challenge that had been accepted ten years ago, when Belgium was crowned the homeland of the most recent golden generation of European football. The country had been a lost hole since the 1980s, but all of a sudden it saw a great flowering of talent.
He boasted of Thibaut Courtois, one of the best goalkeepers in the world; a defense assembled by Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld; a midfielder patrolled by Axel Witsel and led by De Bruyne; and an attack that mixes the cunning of Eden Hazard and the cold-eyed cruelty of Romelu Lukaku. These were just the most important names; behind them was a supporting cast of half a dozen more of Europe’s top players.
In truth, presenting Belgium with an outright binary – glory or failure, trophy or disdain – was always a little too simplistic, perhaps a little blunt. This first team reached the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup, then was eliminated by a more experienced Argentina. He traveled to the same stadium of the European Championship in 2016, before falling to a thriving Welsh side.
Two years later, during the World Cup in 2018, Martínez crossed this particular ceiling: Belgium outclassed Brazil in the round of 16 and fell by the narrowest of margins against the eventual winner, France, in the semi-finals. A frenzied loss to Italy in Munich on Friday meant a step back, a withdrawal into another quarter-final.
Under the terms of the original deal, that means Belgium has failed. But that ignores the fact that success can – and should – be relative. For a nation the size of Belgium, this record is formidable. For a nation in its recent history, this is a striking improvement: prior to 2014, they hadn’t qualified for a major tournament for over a decade. There had been no quarter-final since the 1986 World Cup.
It will be a comfort to the players, of course, as they contemplate the end of their era. Their talent – their own expectations – more justified, wherever they came from, all that previous generations had achieved. Euro 2016 in particular will be a source of regret, the best chance the country had of winning anything. The same goes for the fact that this tournament has been delayed for a year. If Euro 2020 had actually taken place in 2020, Belgium would have been a year younger, a year cooler. Maybe it could have made a difference.
Some of its pillars, certainly, are running out of time. Vermaelen is 35, Vertonghen 34 and Alderweireld 32. Witsel, Nacer Chadli and Dries Mertens are also in the fall of their careers.
Even Hazard – only 30 years old, but plagued with injuries over the past two years – could now be on an accelerated descent from his stupendous peak. For some, if not all of them, the next major tournament, in Qatar next winter, is probably a step too far.
Belgium’s golden generation – this team that has only undergone the most cosmetic changes since that first tournament in 2014 – will never make that final leap, never win anything, not like they were supposed to, not together.
And yet there is also a misunderstanding here, because when the clock strikes midnight, nothing stops. It just means that a new day is starting. Generations do not rise and fall in perfect synchronicity; they fold, relate and merge into each other.
Vermaelen, Vertonghen and Witsel might not qualify for the next World Cup, but Youri Tielemans and Yannick Carrasco and Timothy Castagne will make it. So too, De Bruyne and Lukaku want. Belgium will not disappear. The binary – winning something now or being condemned to unworthiness forever – is and always has been an illusion. Martínez, if he stays in place, can always take a formidable side in Qatar.
The New York Times